5 ways to foster innovation

5 ways to foster innovation

When Apple announced in May that it intended to buy Beats, a luxury headphone maker and music-streaming company, it set tongues wagging throughout the tech world. Had the company that defined the phrase “Think Different” run out of its own ideas, forced instead to go shopping for someone else’s? And if a world-changing, era-defining organization like Apple can run into an innovation wall, what does that say for the multitudes of mere mortal companies trying to stay one idea ahead of their rivals? It’s obviously too soon to write an obituary for the Apple idea engine, but the episode brought into sharp focus the challenges facing today’s business leaders.

And they know it. In one survey, conducted jointly by the Schulich Executive Education Centre and The Globe and Mail, nine out of 10 leaders said they recognized that the future success of their organizations depends on innovation. However, just 30 per cent are satisfied with the level of innovation around them. In a fast-changing economy, where technological changes are forcing whole industries to reinvent themselves, plugging that innovation gap is more important than ever.

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The Experts

To help business leaders navigate those challenges, we asked experts for tips on how to foster innovation at work.

1) Get out of the office

Ideas don’t come from sitting at a desk, racking your brain, hoping for a breakthrough. Great ideas come when you get out and interact with the world. And one of the best ways to do that is through your customers – talking to them, yes, but also observing them in action.

There’s a story Thomas Wedell-Wedellsborg likes to tell to about the invention of the wheel – or more precisely, wheels on suitcases. For decades after the advent of commercial airline travel, passengers had to haul their heavy luggage through airports. “The suitcase industry did a lot of innovation on colours, size and supply chains,” he says. “But what they didn’t do is look at consumers and ask, ‘Is there a simple way we can improve their lives?’” Then, in 1970, Bernard Sadow, an executive at a Massachusetts luggage company, was on vacation with his family, weighed down by bags, when he saw an airport employee pass by pulling a piece of heavy machinery on a wheeled skid. A light went off, and suitcase wheels were born.

Like anthropologists in the field, business leaders should encourage their employees to observe their customers in the wild, taking note of even the smallest inconveniences, which could translate into huge opportunities for product improvement. Focus groups just won’t cut it, says Wedell-Wedellsborg. While that format offers a way for customers to give their feedback, the reality is that customers are often the last to know what’s missing from their lives. That is, until someone comes along and offers it to them.

2) Surround yourself with the right people

It sounds simple. A company is the sum of its employees, so pick great employees and the innovations will flow. Only, it’s never that easy, says Elizabeth Newton, who has often watched bosses put out the call for employees to “create wonderful things,” only to see the boss revert to the idea he had in his head all along. That’s partly because business leaders assume it’s up to them to be the driver of creativity in companies – that their primary job is to get buy-in from employees for their grand ideas. “But a leader’s most important role is to create results through other people,” says Wedell-Wedellsborg.

From the point of hiring new employees, right through assembling teams, Newton says it’s vital to have a diversity of creative types (a mix of extroverts, introverts, divergent thinkers and so on) and to ensure their voices are heard. “Brainstorming sessions are very catered to extroverts who think quickly,” she says. “If that’s your style, you’re probably missing out on a lot of creative brilliance from introverted employees who could do with a little bit more time and not necessarily being in a group.”

Newton says having a diverse team around you will help lead to “creative abrasion – even a little bit of healthy conflict can lead to better creative outcomes, while group think can lead people down the rabbit hole,” she says.

And don’t forget, creative talent attracts more creative talent. “People want to join very exciting companies with innovative cultures,” says Salim Teja. “If companies don’t have that kind of culture ingrained, it will be hard for them to recruit top tier talent.” And that will make recruiting the right people even harder than it already is.

3) Be focused

Everyone loves the idea of Google’s “20 per cent time,” which provides employees with one day per week to work on their own projects. The initiative is credited with helping create the Gmail and Adwords services. But for the vast majority of companies, highlighting a specific problem that needs to be solved will inspire better innovation and generate results more aligned to the company’s needs. “Innovation is a tricky word. Everyone wants to support it, but it’s such an enigmatic thing that it’s hard to put together a strategy and measure how well it’s working,” says Teja. “We’ve started seeing our corporate partners redefining innovation, trying to make it much more focused on return on investment, much more tangible and results-oriented.”

For one thing, says Wedell-Wedellsborg, assigning employees specific problems to fix can stir people to action in a way that vague calls to “innovate” can’t. “If you give people lots of freedom, you often find them running off in different directions,” he says. “But if you focus them on one specific problem, you increase the chances of people collaborating on that specific thing.”

Also keep in mind that some entrepreneurial leaders may grow bored with the grunt work of bringing an idea to market, and want to move on to the next big thing. “Sometimes, that means bringing in someone to do the boring executive stuff if you want to really be the chief creative officer,” says Newton.

It’s worth noting that even Google has made moves to clamp down on its most famous perk by setting rules around the use of innovation free time, and focusing its efforts more on products that benefit the company’s bottom line.

4) Put ideas to the test

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It’s the stuff of comic strips – a light bulb appears as an idea springs to mind, fully formed and ready to be put into action. In the real world, that’s a dangerous notion. “People overestimate the perfection of their first ideas,” says Wedell-Wedellsborg. And if those people happen to be bosses with the resources to act on their eureka moments without being challenged, the outcome can be disastrous.

But it’s a lesson that extends beyond the CEO’s office. At all levels of an organization, the best ideas are those that are tested and tweaked in response. Because innovation entails unpredictability, Wedell-Wedellsborg says ideas should be regularly subjected to “small collisions with reality” as early as possible. “There are people who like to spend half a year sitting in a corner polishing ideas before sharing them,” he says “By the time they seek input from others, it’s usually too late.” Instead, companies are increasingly turning to collaborative efforts such as daily stand-up meetings, where team members gather for a few minutes – preferably standing, which tends to speed up the process – to update each other on their progress.

Cast the net wide when testing ideas, says Teja. “Don’t just have the product people build products. Get feedback from marketing, HR and other demographic segments. You want to try and get a multidisciplinary feedback around a given problem.”

5) Be aware of the dangers of workplace politics

Internal politics can be one of the biggest roadblocks to innovation, something managers at all levels of a company need to be aware of. An idea may have the potential to revolutionize a company, says Wedell- Wedellsborg, but that also means it will likely upend the status quo. Going straight to the top with an idea, especially an unconventional one, runs the risk of it getting caught up in turf wars, office fiefdoms or just plain resistance to change. It can also be a career killer if it goes wrong. So Wedell-Wedellsborg advocates what he calls “stealth innovation” – innovating under the radar until an idea has been tested and grown beyond the toddler stage.

The best ideas also often come from young workers who don’t yet know how to navigate an organization’s structure. For that reason, he suggests those people be paired with mentors who can shepherd ideas through corporate hierarchies and secure funding to get them off the ground. “If you don’t keep the political perspective in mind,” he says, “then people get burned, especially in more traditional companies.”

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- Matthew Kirby / Photograph by Vicky Lam